LOUISVILLE, Ga. — Jefferson County residents were warned Wednesday not to touch or recover any debris they find after Tuesday night’s collision between two South Carolina National Guard F-16s during a training exercise.
“We have a specialized team, and they will be working around the clock to contain that initially,” said Col. Nicholas Gentile Jr., the commander of the 169th Fighter Wing of the South Carolina Air National Guard. “It’s cordoned off, and it needs to stay that way because there are hazardous materials.
“We need the populace to stay away and if you do see any equipment, there could be some scattered around Jefferson County; if you see any, we ask you to immediately contact the sheriff’s department or local law enforcement.”
The jets collided about 9:15 p.m. Tuesday during combat training maneuvers against electronic warfare targets and emitters. The pilots safely ejected and were found after an hourlong search in a remote, densely wooded area. They were taken to Jefferson Hospital, then returned “in good shape” to their base in Eastover, S.C., Gentile said.
The pilots were found about two miles apart. The first parachuted into a field near a mobile home on Eden Church Road. A search for the second pilot ended in a wooded area off John Stanley Road.
Several area residents already have taken pieces of debris to them, but Gentile said he recommends residents not touch anything they think might be debris from the jets, which is likely to be scattered over a very large area.
“The main wreckage is in a couple-hundred-square-yard area, but we are finding wreckage as far as three miles away,” Gentile said. “It will take until we find it. I don’t have a guess – two days, two weeks. We are prepared for the long haul.”
Gentile described the impact site in “a very densely vegetated forest.” It was so thick that discovery of wreckage of the second jet was not confirmed until Wednesday afternoon.
“It was about three-fourths of a mile from where we found the second pilot,” a member of the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office said. “It was about 50 yards into the wood line with the nose straight down. It didn’t even burn. The tail was still intact.”
Within the next 72 hours, Gentile said, protocol calls for a U.S. Air Force Safety Board to take over the investigation and command of the site.
“In the meantime, we are going to take care of the property, get our stuff back and protect anybody from any issues we have. That’s our main concern, the safety of local residents and the safety of the first responders,” Gentile said.
Safety board investigations are usually completed within 30 days after both jets are found, but extreme conditions could push the investigation to 45 days, Gentile said.
He thanked local first responders and law enforcement officers who have assisted in the incident from the beginning.
“The sheriff (Gary Hutchins) has been tremendous,” Gentile said. “We were immediately in contact with him last night, and we’ve been very fortunate to have such a great group of folks to work with. The Emergency Management Agency was critical in helping get our pilots out and getting them first aid last night. All of that made it a lot easier last night. It was a real team effort.”
The two jet pilots were training in the Bulldog Military Operation Area, which is a roughly 100-mile zone over much of Jefferson County up to about 27,000 feet that is routinely used by several military bases flying a variety of platforms of fighter jets including the F-16, F-15, F-18 and A-10 and heavier aircraft such as the C-130.
“It’s one the best training airspaces in the United States, definitely in the Southeast, for us. It has electronic ranges as well as a lot of area,” Gentile said. “Every day and every night we’re here. It’s one of our primary areas we work in.”